What a Difference a Century Can Make

At the beginning of the 20th century, a traveler in Central Africa made mention of some strange people that he had come across. He was traveling among regular, run-of-the-mill natives…probably Bantu-speaking people living in scattered villages and farming for their food. But along the way, strange people came out of the forest. These strange people had sloping foreheads; they were short of stature, bow-legged and otherwise misshapen. They also clearly were, in the eyes of the traveler, of subhuman intelligence. The traveler described these people as a separate, subhuman race that lived in the forest. As I read this, I began to think that perhaps he was speaking of so-called “Pygmies” who live in this region, and as I began to think that, I started to get mad at this writer because so-called “Pygmies” do not look or act as he described.

Then, the writer totally surprised me by noting (I paraphrase) that “unlike the Pygmies, who live in these forests and are of perfectly proportioned shape and appearance, these subhuman creatures were rather grotesque.”

The traveler was a college-educated westerner with a late-Victorian attitude about Africans. The idea that all Africans are at least a little subhuman would have been a starting point for him. Throwing in a tribe here and there with especially cannibalistic or otherwise uncouth tendencies would be typical. Running into a group of individuals that looked to him almost like a separate species would be notable, and he did in fact make note of it, but this would be something he would take in stride.

Reading this made me wonder about two totally different and to some extent opposed lines of thought. On one hand, I thought, “How can people think such things are real…this guy was obviously seeing something he expected to see. Why? How does that work?” On the other hand, I thought, “What if his observations were essentially accurate, aside from the racial judgments he made. What if he really did encounter a bunch of people with bow legs and funny-looking bodies?”

Then, in the next paragraph of this monologue, a possible answer came. Shortly after the above mentioned description, the traveler mentions that one of these strange heathens, with the bow legs and the disproportioned body, traveled with him as a servant for a while. Then, at the end of that leg of the trip, after serving quite well for being such a subhuman and all, the traveler wanted to leave this misshapen wretch with some sort of extra payment for services. A tip. But the wretch had withdrawn to the forest never to be seen again (by the traveller), apparently uninterested in recompense.


Or at least, maybe bingo. I have an experience that may in fact match that of this ca. 1900-vintage traveler. Actually, a few such experiences. But as a post- (way post!) Victorian anthropologist, I have a slightly different take on the situation.

When I lived in the Ituri Forest, I often lived with the Pygmies for stretches of time. There were two modalities of living with them. In one mode, I would throw myself on their mercy and more or less live exactly as they lived, staying in the same kind of hut they lived in and doing whatever they did, or at least watching them do whatever they were doing, and trying to stay out of the way at the same time as observing and learning things about their lifeway. In the other modality, I stayed in a small dome tent (a cloth version of their hut) and was a bit more involved with the logistics of camp life, because during at least some of that time (several weeks over the course of many many months), it was more like they were living with me. I would hire a small number of Pygmy men, and maybe have one villager with us as well, and another anthropologist, and we’d be doing something like digging an archaeological site, measuring trees, counting monkeys, or whatever.

During some of these forays, especially in the first modality when it was only me (no other anthropologist) travelling with them, and I was living in their lifeway, more or less, I was assigned a wife. Sort of. This happened a couple of times, with different groups, and different individuals. In each case the person whom I eventually came to understand was serving the role of Mrs. Gregoiri (one of my Efe names was Gregoiri, which I admit is not too original) was a man with pretty severe polio.

These were men who could not carry out many of the activities in which the men normally engaged with respect to hunting and other forest activities. Even moving from camp to camp might be a challenge to someone whose legs were very shortened and deformed and who had, essentially, a kind of polio-induced dwarfism. For the most part, these men had outstanding manual skills. They could shoot an arrow as well as any (or better) and were outstanding at making things that the other men also made, but that the polio-afflicted men would make with utmost skill. What they lacked was stamina in the field.

Their condition meant that they would be unlikely to marry. It meant that they would be in camp with the women anywhere from now and then to almost always as the men went off to hunt. It meant that their social and economic gender was unique. And it meant that when someone had to be assigned to keep the big pasty white guy who was always tripping on tree roots and poking himself with sticks from harming himself, well, this person was the obvious choice.

I remembered, rather poignantly in fact, on reading the aforementioned traveler’s notice that the strange deformed subhuman left without any special recompense, that this is what happened to me as well. It was a bit of a privilege to hang out with the visitor, as would be the case in most cultures, and the visitor seemed to overlook the person’s affliction, which is something that many visitors may not have done.

The polio that came through the Ituri Forest of Zaire must have come through at roughly the same time because all the men who had it were about the same age…my age, actually. This population of forest dwelling people must have been very susceptible to it. And the Pygmies were notable for either refusing or just being bad at accepting long-term treatment or hospital stays, so even if there was some help available for them in those days, it may have ended up rather ineffective. Many must have died.

I need not mention that I never saw a subhuman deformed race. I did see some men who were being very good to me, keeping me from getting killed by the snakes, the elements, by getting poked to death or falling off a cliff into quicksand, or whatever one may think of as the dangers of the African Jungle. And they didn’t want any special pay for it.

Those marriages were short lived. But they were good marriages.

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7 Responses to “What a Difference a Century Can Make”

  1. July 8th, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    thinkoplex says:

    I may be misinterpreting what you wrote, but, if not, it is very intriguing. Since you were assigned a man to be your wife, based on his staying with the women in camp and being unable to engage in hunting with the other men, does that imply that, among the Pygmies, gender is determined not by biological sex but by social roles?

    If so, that is a fascinating concept, and I wonder if the reverse were at least theoretically possible: that a woman who engaged in hunting with the men would also be considered a man.

    If this is even partly the case, I would love to read more about it. Perhaps you could address gender among the Pygmies in a later post, or at least point me to a source on this topic.

  2. July 8th, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Russell says:

    It’s not just Victorians who sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between those who suffered some malady from those who are possibly a different species. Look at the controversy over Homo floresiensis.

  3. July 8th, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Joshua Zelinsky says:

    Russell, the specimens of H. floresiensis are dead and not complete. All we have are skeletal remains. It isn’t exactly comparable.

    Moreover, the Victorian referred to by Greg didn’t wonder if maybe the person was from some deformed race and investigate further, he just took it as a given.

  4. July 8th, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    HalfMooner says:

    Fascinating story, as usual, Greg!

    Of course, I don’t really know, but the people the Victorian described (as you put it: “These strange people had sloping foreheads; they were short of stature, bow-legged and otherwise misshapen”) sound to me like they may have literally been a band of chimpanzees.

    Of course, having one of them become a temporary servant is quite unlikely behavior for a chimp!

    Could it be there are two things in the account? First, an actual sighting of curious chimps from a distance, and then the Victorian’s conflation of the chimps with a physically deformed “Pygmy” who later joined on as a temporary helper? Otherwise, I’d have to think the Victorian was simply lying in one or both aspects of his tale.

  5. July 9th, 2009 at 6:46 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Joshua makes a good point about what Russell says, but Russell makes a good point that actually had occurred to me when I first started hearing about Flores being pathological.

    Thinkoplex: It is probably, as one would expect, not so simple as “not by biological sex but by social roles?” … the polio men carry bows and arrows, and only men do that, for instance. The polio men with the extreme affliction do not get assigned the gender of “woman.” Indeed, I used the term “wife” in this case very advisedly. We are not talking about a role reversal, but rather, a complexificiation of gender. And, the social role is not the determining thing here, but rather, a physical limitation is determining something.

    But yes, there is something to be said for the social role.

  6. July 10th, 2009 at 3:18 am

    Al West says:

    I find these glimpses into Africa fascinating, as someone whose only African experience is a stop-over in Cairo. I read your blog and end up with a burning desire to learn KiSwahili and run off to the jungle.

  7. July 10th, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    Dan Milton says:

    This account of crippled and misshapen individuals who serve for no pay reminds me — far from Africa — of the Brownies of Scotland, or at least of what appears to lie behind the folkloric supernatural beings and their Disneyized versions.
    All I know of this is from an essay from 1840 or so by John Brown, M.D. “The Black Dwarf’s Bones” and a marvelous poem he includes, “The Brownie of Blednoch”, which (courtesy of Bladnoch Distillery) can be found at http://www.bladnoch.co.uk/aikendrum.htm.

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